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Playing range

For 64-reeds (16-holes) chromatic harmonica: C below Middle C (C) to C5; 4 octaves

Related instruments

accordion, melodica, harmonium, concertina, sheng, reed organ, Yu

More articles

List of harmonicists

A harmonica is a free reed musical wind instrument (also known, among other things, as a mouth organ or mouth harp, French harp, tin sandwich, blues harp, simply harp, or "Mississippi saxophone"), having multiple, variably-tuned brass or bronze reeds, each secured at one end over an airway slot of like dimension into which it can freely vibrate, thus repeatedly interrupting an airstream to produce sound.

Unlike most free-reed instruments (such as reed organs, accordions and melodicas), the harmonica lacks a keyboard. Instead, the player selects the notes by placement of their mouth over the proper airways, usually made up of discrete holes in the front of the instrument. Each hole communicates with one, two or a few reeds. Because a reed mounted above a slot is made to vibrate more easily by air from above, reeds accessed by a mouthpiece hole often may be selected further by choice of breath direction (blowing, drawing). Some harmonicas (primarily chromatic harmonicas) also include a spring-loaded button-actuated slide that, when depressed, redirects the airflow.

The harmonica is commonly used in blues and folk music, but also in jazz, classical music, country music, rock and roll and pop music. Increasingly, the harmonica is finding its place in more electronically generated music, such as dance and hip-hop, as well as funk and acid jazz. Harmonica seems to be an instrument that crosses ethnic, musical, and cultural divides in a manner that is not as well duplicated by many other instruments.

Parts of the harmonica

Comb and two reedplates.
Comb and two reedplates.
Reedplate mounted on the comb of a diatonic harmonica.
Reedplate mounted on the comb of a diatonic harmonica.
Reed plate.
Reed plate.

The basic parts of the harmonica are the comb, reed-plates and cover-plates. The comb is the term for the main body of the instrument. These are traditionally made of wood, but plastic (ABS) and metal combs are perhaps more common today. The comb contains the air chambers which cover the reeds - the name comb comes from the fact that in simple harmonicas it does indeed resemble a hair-comb. In some designs, however, the comb is in fact very complex in arranging how the air is directed, particularly in more modern and experimental designs.

There is much debate about whether comb-material has an effect on the tone of the harmonica or not. While this has traditionally been the assumption, several recent attempts at blind testing have not been able to show that people can hear a difference when comb material is the only variable, and the main advantage one comb material truly have over another one is usually its durability. In particular, a wooden comb can absorb moisture from the player's breath and contact with the tongue, causing the comb to expand slightly. This can become uncomfortable to play. Conversely, some players used to deliberately soak their wooden-combed hamonicas to cause a slight expansion which was intended to make the seal between the comb, reed plates and covers more airtight.

The choice of comb material is usually decided by the player, as the tonality of each material is only heard by the player of the "harp". Once the sound escapes the instrument, it is then subjected to the environmental changes and to the bias of a listener's ear.

Reed-plate is the term for a grouping of several free-reeds in a single housing (usually brass, but occasionally steel and aluminium have been used, as well as plastics). These individual reeds are usually riveted to the reed-plate but they may also be welded or screwed in place (a notable exception is the all-plastic harmonicas designed by Finn Magnus in the 1950s, where the reed and reed-plate were molded out of a single piece of plastic). (Note: The choice of reed-plate material is expressly dependent upon the individual player's preference.) Reeds fixed on the inside (within the comb's air chamber) of the reed-plate respond to pressure while those on the outside (in the open air) respond to suction. Most harmonicas are constructed with the reed-plates screwed or bolted to the comb or each other, however a few brands still use the traditional method of nailing the reed-plates to the comb.

Again, the Magnus design had the reeds, reed-plates and comb all out of plastic and either molded together or permanently glued together. Some experimental and rare harmonicas also have the reed-plates held in place by tension, such as the WWII era All-American models.

If the plates are bolted to the comb, it can be possible to replace the reed plates individually. This is useful, as the reeds eventually go out of tune through normal use, and certain notes of the scale can fail more quickly than others.

The cover or cover-plates cover the reed-plates and are usually made of metal, although wood and plastic have also been used. As pointed out previously, the choice of these is extremely personal. As they project the sound, they determine the tonal quality of the harmonica. There two types: the traditional open designs of stamped metal or plastic are simply there to be held, while the enclosed design (such as Hohner Meisterklass and Super 64, Suzuki Promaster and SCX) offer a louder tonal quality. From these two, a few modern designs are spawned, such as the Hohner CBH-2016 chromatic and the Suzuki Overdrive diatonic, which have complex covers which allow for specific functions not usually available in the traditional design. Similarly, it was not unusual in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to see harmonicas with special features on the covers such as bells which could be rung by pushing a button and the like.

Windsavers are one-way valves made from very thin strips of plastic, knit paper, leather, or teflon glued onto the reed-plate. Windsavers, typically found in Chromatic harmonicas, Chord harmonicas, and many Octave-tuned harmonicas, are used when two reeds share a cell and leakage through the non-playing reed would be significant. For example, when a draw note is played, the valve on blow reed-slot is sucked shut, preventing air from leaking through the inactive blow reed. An exception is the recent Hohner XB-40 where valves are placed not to isolate single reeds but rather to isolate entire chambers from being active.

Some harmonicas have other parts as well. The mouthpiece is an object which is placed between the air chambers of the instrument and the player's mouth. This can be made integral with the comb (the diatonic harmonicas, the Hohner Chrometta), as part of the cover (as in Hohner's CX-12) or as a separate unit entirely, secured by screws, which is typical of Chromatics. In many harmonicas the mouthpiece is purely an ergonomic aide designed to make playing more comfortable, but in the traditional slider-based chromatic harmonica it is essential to the functioning of the instrument since it provides a groove for the slide.

It should also be noted that among players, the brand that one chooses usually is based on one's ability to play, the pliability of the reeds, sound of the instrument, and, surprisingly, price. Many feel that the best harmonicas are more expensively priced, though many skilled players feel that price and quality are not related.

Harmonica types

The diatonic harmonica

Diatonic harmonicas.
Diatonic harmonicas.

The diatonic harmonica is the most widely known type of harmonica. It has ten holes which offer the player 19 notes (10 holes times a draw and a blow for each hole minus one repeated note) in a three octave range. The standard diatonic harmonica is designed to allow a player to play chords and melody in a single key. Because they are only designed to be played in a single key at a time, diatonic harmonicas are available in all keys. Here is a standard diatonic harmonica's layout in the key of C (blow for 1 is middle C):

       1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10
blow: |C |E |G |C |E |G |C |E |G |C |
suck: |D |G |B |D |F |A |B |D |F |A |

Note that although there are 3 octaves between 1 and 10 blow, there is only one full major scale available on the harmonica, between holes 4 and 7. The lower holes are designed around the tonic (C major) and dominant (G major) chords, allowing a player to play these chords underneath a melody by blocking or unblocking the lower holes with the tongue. The most important notes (the tonic triad C-E-G) are given the blow, and the secondary notes (D-B-F-A), the draw.

Valved Diatonics

The valved diatonic is one of the most common way of playing chromatic scales on diatonics (as many feel the advanced technique called an "overblend" is too difficult). While chromatic is available, valved diatonic is also common, and there are reasons to use a valved diatonic rather than chromatics:

  1. It does not have a slide assembly (so that it has less air leakage)
  2. It has a wider tonal range and dynamic
  3. It has a smaller size and is much more suitable to use with microphone
  4. It's still cheaper than chromatic, even for a premade one like Hohner's Auto Valve or Suzuki Promaster MR-350v Valved

However, it does require one to develop proper embrochure in order to bend the notes, and it's is generally agreed that the sound will not be "true", making it suitable for blues and jazz but so-so for classical music.

Valved Diatonics are made by securing windsavers on draw hole 1-6 and blow 7-10; this way, all reeds can be bent down a semitone at least, but most players can easily bend down a wholetone. Alternatively, one can simply buy a factory made valved diatonics, such as Suzuki Promaster Valved.

Special tuned harmonicas

A number of people have made specially tuned variants of the diatonic harmonica. For example, Lee Oskar Harmonicas makes a variety of harmonicas to help players used to a "Cross-harp" style to play in other styles. Cross-harp players usually base their play around a mixolydian scale starting on 2 draw and ending a 6 blow (with a bend needed to get the second tone of the scale; a full scale can be played from 6 blow to 9 blow). Lee-Oskar special tunes harmonicas to allow players to play a natural minor, harmonic minor, and major scale from 2 draw to 6 blow. Below are some sample layouts (notice that the key labels describe the scale from 2 draw to 6 blow, whereas traditional harmonicas are labelled according to the scale between 4 and 8 blow).

Country tune: Identical to standard Richter Tuning, except hole 5 draw is raised a semitone

Natural Minor (cross harp, 6 blow to 9 blow) / Dorian (straight harp, 4 blow to 7 blow):

       1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9 10
blow: |C |Eb|G |C |Eb|G |C |Eb|G |C |
draw: |D |G |Bb|D |F |A |Bb|D |F |A |

Harmonic Minor (straight harp, 4 blow to 7 blow)

       1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9 10
blow: |C |Eb|G |C |Eb|G |C |Eb|G |C |
draw: |D |G |B |D |F |Ab|B |D |F |Ab|

Major (cross harp, 6 blow to 9 blow), Lee Oskar "Melody Maker" (Note that this will be labeled as "G": Melody Major's key indicate cross harp's key, starting from draw 2)

       1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9 10
blow: |C |E |A |C |E |G |C |E |G |C |
draw: |D |G |B |D |F#|A |B |D |F#|A |

The "Melody Maker" designed and marketed by Lee Oskar is a particularly interesting evolution of the harmonica, since it allows a player accustomed to playing "cross harp" (in mixolydian) to play in a major key (which is what the standard layout is designed for in the first place). Rather than providing the standard C major and G dominant chords, the Melody Maker provides a G Major 7 (2-5 draw), a C Major 6th chord (1-4 blow), an Am or Am7 chord (3-5 or 3-6 blow), a D major chord (4-6 draw) and a C Major chord (6-10 blow). If we are in the key of G, then, the melody maker provides the I chord, the IV chord, the V chord and the II chord, allowing II-V-I progressions as well as I-IV-V progressions.

The largest range of special tunings however is made by the oldest harmonica factory in the world, C.A.Seydel Sohne factory in Klingenthal/Germany. On their Blues models they provide more than 10 additional tunings, even the Chromatic models are available in different tunings from the standard. At customers request any tuning will be made in addition.

It is also possible for a harp player to tune the harmonica himself. By making small scratches in a reed, the note played can be changed. It is possible to either get a higher or a lower note. Some harp players make extensive use of these modifications. One of the most famous examples is the harp solo on 'On the road again' by Canned Heat, on which the harmonicist gets the minor 3rd crossharp on the sixth drawn reed, which is normally the major 2nd crossharp.

The 12-Hole and 14-Hole Diatonic

Hohner had made a few non-standard harmonicas. All of them have more than 10 holes and are labeled "grosse richter". For 12 holes, Hohner had made 364/24 Marine Band, as well as the 364S/24 Marine Band Solo Tuned. The Marine Band Solo Tuned, with 3 full diatonic octave, can play all notes of the key, and since it can easily bend notes, some players use this for Blues (and even jazz) instead of the more well known solo-tuned harmonicas, the chromatic harmonica, since the bended notes sounded very different from true semi-tones. (For layout, see below at Chromatic harmonica, key out) In this configuration, blues players usually play in third position, the D-minor blue scale.

The Hohner Marine Band 365/28 14 hole harmonica is not a standard diatonic harmonica. It has 14 holes and its general dimensions are a bit bigger, so its structure is different from the normal diatonic harmonica and, in the key of C, is pitched one octave lower than the standard 10 hole C diatonic. Thus, hole 4 blow is one octave below middle C. Hole 7 blow is middle C. The Marine Band 365/28 in G is similar to a usual G diatonic, having its higher register expanded.

Holes 1 through 4 and 6 are draw bendable, and holes 8 through 14 are blow bendable. Special attention to the extra holes 11 - 14 where the bending capabilities are, in theory, extended a lot (from A down to E in whole 14, for example).

       1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9 10 11 12 13 14
blow: |C |E |G |C |E |G |C |E |G |C |E |G |C |E |
draw: |D |G |B |D |F |A |B |D |F |A |B |D |F |A |

There is also the "Steve Baker Special" manufactured by Hohner, a special tuned 14 holes diatonic:

       1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9 10 11 12 13 14
blow: |C |E |G |C |E |G |C |E |G |C |E |G |C |E |
draw: |D |G |B |D |G |B |D |F |A |B |D |F |A |B |

The Chromatic harmonica

Hohner Super-Chromatic harmonica, a typical 12-hole chromatic.
Hohner Super-Chromatic harmonica, a typical 12-hole chromatic.

The Chromatic harmonica uses a button-activated sliding bar to redirect air from the hole in the mouthpiece to the selected reed-plate desired. This harp is used for Celtic, Classical, and Jazz, as well as many other styles. Traditionally these are made so that when the button is not pressed, an altered diatonic major scale of the key of the harmonica is available and depressing the button accesses the same scale a semi-tone higher in each hole, thus giving an instrument capable of playing the 12 notes of the Western chromatic scale.

Chromatic harmonicas are usually 12, 14 or 16 holes long. The 12-hole chromatic is available in 12 keys, but due to the fact that the entire chromatic scale is available by definition, most professionals stick with the key of C-which is perhaps easier to remember, since slide in will automatically be the sharps of the associated note. In the standard 12-hole chromatic in C the lowest note is middle C, while 16-hole variants start one octave lower.

For the 16-hole variant, the layout is usually as follows. note that the "D" in the last key-in draw note is common, though by no means presented in all chromatic.

      `1 `2 `3 `4  1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9 10 11 12
blow: |C |E |G |C |C |E |G |C |C |E |G |C |C |E |G |C |  key out
draw: |d |f |a |b |d |f |a |b |d |f |a |b |d |f |a |b |
`1 `2 `3 `4 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 ----------------------------------------------- blow: |C#|F |G#|C#|C#|F |G#|C#|C#|F |G#|C#|C#|F |G#|C#| key in draw: |d#|f#|a#|c |d#|f#|a#|c |d#|f#|a#|c |d#|f#|a#|d | -----------------------------------------------

Because it is a fully chromatic instrument, the chromatic harmonica is the instrument of choice in jazz and classical music. In traditional harmonica bands, the chromatic harmonica plays the lead part.

However, while the chromatic harmonica is capable of playing in all keys, it is not without its limitations. For example, while chromatic harmonicas can "bend" notes down in pitch, as this is a single-reed bend it sounds quite different from the typical dual-reed bends of a diatonic. Further, unless the windsavers are removed chromatic harmonicas cannot "overblow" at all. Perhaps more importantly, the number of chords and double-stops available is limited, as are legato phrasings. Thus, even some of the most accomplished chromatic players are known to use instruments in other keys on occasion, usually the key of F and the key of G.

On the other hand, the fact that the chromatic harmonica is designed to play melodies in any keys, plus the fact that many 16-holes and special versions only come stock in the key of C, implied that a good harmonica player should also try his or her best to use the chromatic in the key of C to its greatest capability, and only switch to other keys when it is absolutely necessary. In general, the first approach (playing in positions) are common among blues and jazz musicians, while the second approach is common for classical music players (as encouraged by Frank Chmel).

Chromatic harmonicas are often described as either "straight tuned" or "cross tuned". This refers to the way the slider is shaped to isolate the reed set being played at a given position (button "in" or button "out"). Traditionally the chromatic was "straight tuned" and the slider selected either the upper reed-plate (button out) or the lower reed-plate (button in). In the later half of the 20th century a new system came into use in which the slider played the upper and lower reed-plates at the same time, staggered by which hole (thus with the button out the player might play the upper reed-plate in hole 1, the lower reed-plate in hole 2, and then the upper again in hole 3 and so forth; pressing the button reversed this). This allows for a larger hole in the slider, and thus presumably more air gets through, allowing a louder volume. The two methods co-exist with some companies and players preferring one style and others another.

There are at least two other types of slider design as well. The first one has holes side-by-side with each other in the slider, thus opening only the left side of the chamber or the right side depending on button position. The Renaissance chromatic uses this design, which is claimed to mix the larger hole of a cross-tuned design with an even shorter movement than in straight tuned sliders. The simple way of doing this is to construct the harmonica more like a traditional Richter diatonic whereas the standard chromatic design shares more in common with the Knittlinger octave harmonicas. Note, however, the Renaissance uses a complex comb design to achieve their slider design. The second type of alternative design is found mostly in East Asia and is based more along the traditional Weiner tremolo construction. Here each reed is isolated in its own cell within the comb and the slider selects a single reed at a time rather than a cell containing both blow and draw reeds. The Tombo Ultimo is an example of this type of chromatic.

Finally, there are also several types of non-slide chromatic instruments available, particularly in Asia, such as the Horn Harmonica (see below), as well as Tombo's S-50, Tombo's Chromatic Violin Range, and others. Tombo Chromatic Violin Range (three and a half octaves), as well as S-50 (thre octaves) use the tremelo scale tuning system (but with only one-reed): in essence it is a C# tremolo harmonica sitting on top of a C tremolo harmonica, with blow and draw reeds each sitting in a single cell. The player switches between a top row tuned to C# and a bottom tuned to C by changing the angle of the harmonica.

Like Diatonic, Chromatics are available in numerous tunings. However, there are three more popular versions: one is the Irish tuning, which is done by flattening (instead of sharpening) the notes when the slide is in. This makes playing Irish music, and to a certain extend, blues, easier, since Irish music is commonly played in either the key of C or key of B, which is basically all notes in the key of C flattened. The Irish Tune can be done easily by reversing the slide (fliping the slide upside down) of a chromatic in the key of B major; alternatively, one can just use the B major as is, but use slide-in as the home position.

        Key out: identical to solo tuning
`1 `2 `3 `4 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 ----------------------------------------------- blow: |B |Eb|Gb|B |B |Eb|Gb|B |B |Eb|Gb|B |B |Eb|Gb|B | key in draw: |db|e |ab|bb|db|e |ab|bb|db|e |ab|bb|db|e |ab|bb| -----------------------------------------------

Another one is the bebop tuning, which is done by tuning the redundant C/C# in hole 4', 4, 8, and 12 blow into a Bb/B pair. This allow playing chords in the key of F, as well as playing C7 chord.

      `1 `2 `3 `4  1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9 10 11 12
blow: |C |E |G |Bb|C |E |G |Bb|C |E |G |Bb|C |E |G |Bb|  key out
draw: |d |f |a |b |d |f |a |b |d |f |a |b |d |f |a |b |
`1 `2 `3 `4 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 ----------------------------------------------- blow: |C#|F |G#|B |C#|F |G#|B |C#|F |G#|B |C#|F |G#|B | key in draw: |d#|f#|a#|c |d#|f#|a#|c |d#|f#|a#|c |d#|f#|a#|c | -----------------------------------------------

Another popular version of alternate tuning is the classical tuning, which is done by switching between the blow and draw of the 4th hole of each octave:

      `1 `2 `3 `4  1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9 10 11 12
blow: |C |E |G |B |C |E |G |B |C |E |G |B |C |E |G |B |  key out
draw: |d |f |a |c |d |f |a |c |d |f |a |c |d |f |a |c |
`1 `2 `3 `4 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 ----------------------------------------------- blow: |C#|F |G#|C |C#|F |G#|C |C#|F |G#|C |C#|F |G#|C | key in draw: |d#|f#|a#|c#|d#|f#|a#|c#|d#|f#|a#|c#|d#|f#|a#|c#| -----------------------------------------------

This easily allow Imaj7 and iimajo7 chords, as well as many other chords, which are very beneficial for classical music playing.

The Tremolo Harmonica

A tremolo harmonica.
A tremolo harmonica.

Tremolo harmonicas have two reeds per note. In a tremolo harmonica the two reeds are tuned slightly off a reference pitch, one a bit sharp and the other a bit flat. This gives a unique wavering or warbling sound created by the two reeds being not exactly in tune with each other and difference in their subsequent waveforms acting against one another. The degree of beating can be varied depending on the desired effect. Instruments where the beating is faster due to the reeds being farther apart from the reference pitch are called "wet", whereas those where the beating is slower and less noticeable due to the reeds being more closely in tune are called "dry".

The tonal variation of the tremolo harmonica is not truly "tremolo". "Tremolo" is most often defined as a periodic change of volume (or, less often, pitch), and the tremolo harmonica really exhibits something entirely different: a frequency interference pattern. This effect is fairly common amongst Western free-reed instruments and is found in accordions, harmoniums and reed organs under various names (celeste, vox jubilante, etc...).

Tremolo harmonicas are perhaps the most common form of harmonica in the world, being very popular in folk music as well as in much of East Asia. In the West, the tremolo harmonica is usually encountered in traditional folk music, being found throughout Europe and South America in this role. In China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and other parts of Asia, however, tremolo harmonicas are found in nearly every area of music from folk to classical - in fact, there are specially manufactured tremolo harmonicas for ensemble playing. Players often use several different harmonicas at a time, holding them one atop the other, in order to play notes and chords not available on any single instrument.

Most tremolo harmonicas are built upon what is termed the "Wiener system", named after the city of Vienna (Wien in German) where they first emerged. In this design the two beating reeds are distributed one on each reed-plate (top and bottom) and these share a common chamber. In practice, however, it is common for each individual reed to have its own air chamber. Unlike the diatonic harmonica described above (built on the "Richter system") the blow and draw reeds do not share a common chamber, but are separated off from one another. This allows the player to isolate each reed. While normally the player simply plays both the tremolo reeds at once, it is possible to achieve a wide variety of bends and other effects through selecting certain reeds and chambers and not others. Similarly, it is possible to play without the tremolo effect by only choosing the top or bottom chambers and blocking off the others with the lips. In practice, though, these are primarily used for effects and mostly the instrument is played as if the two beating reeds shared a single chamber.

There are three commonly encountered tunings or note layouts used for tremolo harmonicas. The older layout is very similar to that used in the standard diatonic harmonica and also found in diatonic accordions and concertinas. This tuning has the major diatonic scale in the middle and top octaves of the harmonica with two chords in the lowest octave: the tonic in the blow and the dominant or fifth chord in the draw. This is very effective for chordal playing behind relatively simple folk melodies in either the tonic or the fifth of the key of the harmonica. In asia, the fourths and the sixths are added back in, in order to play the melody; however, it was still unlike the scale tuning mentioned below, since the octaves are not repeated through out the layout.

(capital letters indicate blow, non-capital letters denote draw)
Common tuning in Europe and North America
   1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9    10    (Hohner's labeling)
 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 
|C |d |E |g |G |b |C |d |E |f |G |a |C |b |E |d |G |f |C |a |
|C |d |E |g |G |b |C |d |E |f |G |a |C |b |E |d |G |f |C |a |

Common tuning in East Asia 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 ----------------------------------------------------------------------- |G |d |C |f |E |a |G |b |C |d |E |f |G |a |C |b |E |d |G |f |C |a |E |b | |G |d |C |f |E |a |G |b |C |d |E |f |G |a |C |b |E |d |G |f |C |a |E |b | -----------------------------------------------------------------------

A more recently developed tuning is commonly found on tremolos manufactured in or designed for Asia. This layout is derived from the "solo" tuning found in chromatic harmonicas and is sometimes called "scale" tuning. Here the notes of the major scale are found through out the range of the harmonica without a separate chord section in the bass octave. This helps to facilitate a common practice in Asia of playing both a C and C# harmonica stacked in order to achieve full chromaticity by having essentially the same notes available in each octave of the harmonica. This tuning is also applied to Tombo's S-50.

(capital letters indicate blow, non-capital letters denote draw)
 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24
|C |d |E |f |G |a |C |b |C |d |E |f |G |a |C |b |C |d |E |f |G |a |C |b |
|C |d |E |f |G |a |C |b |C |d |E |f |G |a |C |b |C |d |E |f |G |a |C |b |

Note: Some manufacturers replace the repeated root note (7 and 15) with a spacer (See S-50), or just completely do away with it at all (eg: hohner)

Recently, hohner also released a scale-tuned tremelo, the "21 Tremelo De Luxe", which have 3 complete scale-tuned octaves.

An interesting recent development has been that of the chromatic tremolo harmonica. This combines the slider design of the chromatic harmonica with the dual reed beating sound of the tremolo harmonica. Harmonica technician John Infande has been manufacturing his own design in limited numbers for several years while the Japanese harmonica company Suzuki has recently released its design.

The Octave Harmonica

Octave harmonicas have two reeds per hole. The two reeds are tuned to the same note a perfect octave apart. Many share their basic design with the tremolo harmonica explained above and are built upon this "Wiener system" of construction. Octave harmonicas also come in what is called the "Knittlinger system". In this design the top and bottom reed-plates contain all of the blow and draw notes for either to lower or higher pitched set of reeds. The comb is constructed so that the blow and draw reeds on each reed-plate are paired side-by-side in a single chamber in the same manner as on a standard diatonic but that the top and bottom pairs each have their own chamber. Thus, in a C harmonica the higher pitched C blow and D draw found in the first "hole" would be placed side-by-side on the upper reed-plate and share a single chamber in the comb and the lower pitched C blow and D draw would be placed side-by-side on the bottom reed-plate and share a single chamber directly below the higher pitched pair of reeds' chamber. Knittlinger octave harmonicas are also called "concert" harmonicas and are almost always tuned in a variation of the traditional major diatonic with chords tuning found in diatonic harmonicas. Octave harmonicas built in the "Wiener system" may be tuned either in this traditional method or in the same manner as the Asian tremolos mentioned above.

An interesting variation upon the Knittlinger octave harmonica is the so-called "half-concert" harmonica. This is not an octave harmonica at all, but rather a single-note diatonic harmonica which is built with a single reed-plate rather than the standard two--essentially it is one half of the standard octave harmonica.

The Orchestral harmonicas

These harmonicas are primarily designed for use in ensemble playing.

The Orchestral Melody harmonica (Horn harmonica)

The orchestral melody harmonica, or Horn harmonicas as called in Asia, are mostly found in East Asia. These consist of a single large comb with blow only reed-plates on the top and bottom. Each reed sits inside a single cell in the comb, and the instrument mimics the layout of a piano or mallet insturment, with the natural notes of a C diatonic scale available from the lower reed-plate and the sharps/flats from the upper reed-plate in groups of two and three holes with gaps in-between (thus there is no E#/Fb hole nor a B#/Cb hole on the upper reed-plate). These are available in several pitch ranges, with the lowest pitched starting two-octaves below middle C and the highest beginning on middle C itself. These usually cover a two or three octave range. These are usually played in an East Asian harmonica orchestra, using these instruments instead of the chromatic harmonica, and often serve to function in place of brass section- hence it was called horn harmonica in Asia.

The Bass harmonica

The Bass harmonica consists of two separate combs joined together one atop the other with moveable connectors at their ends. These are all-blow instruments covering much the same range as the viol family Double Bass. Those made today are all octave tuned, in that each hole has two reeds one of which plays the bass note and the other a note an octave higher. The lower comb contains the notes of the C major diatonic scale, while the upper comb contains the notes of a C#(Db) diatonic scale.

The Chord harmonica

The chord harmonica has 48 chords: major, seventh, minor, augmented and diminished for ensemble playing. It is laid out in four-note clusters, each sounding a different chord on inhaling or exhaling. Typically each hole has two reeds for each note, tuned to one octave of each other, but less expensive models often have only one reed per note.

In addition to these, quite a few orchestra harmonicas are also designed to serve both as a bass and chord harmonica, with bass notes next to chord groupings. Other interesting harmonicas include the Polyphonias which are designed to make glissandos and other effects very easy to play--few acoustic instruments can play a chromatic glissando as fast as a Polyphonia.

New Developments

The Suzuki Overdrive

The Suzuki Overdrive is a richter-tuned diatonic harmonica designed to facilitate overblowing. The Overdrive is constructed with individual air-chambers for each reed in the covers. Holes at the ends of each chamber are located to allow the player to block off the air flow with their fingers and thus silence that reed. This isolates the other reed which shares the same comb chamber and allows that reed to be overblown or bent as if it were the only reed in its cell. This allows for many techniques and manipulations of the reed that can be difficult to perform on a standard diatonic harmonica.

The Hohner XB-40

The Hohner XB-40 is an entirely new design, body wise, though in practice is still a richter-tuned (diatonic) harmonica. Here the blow reeds and the draw reeds are sealed off from one another with valves, effectively creating two separate cells in the comb for each hole in the mouthpiece: one for blow and another for draw. A second reed is then placed in this cell at a zero-offset so that it does not sound under normal playing. However, it is placed on the opposite side of the reed-plate from the speaking reed and tuned so that it responds when the player "bends" the note downwards in pitch. This allows for every note on the XB-40 to be bent downwards a whole-tone or more, whereas on standard diatonics only certain notes (the higher-pitched in the cell) will bend at all. In terms of sound production mechanics, it use additional reeds to reach some other harmonics.

      |Bb|D |F |Bb|D |F |Bb|D |F |A#|
      |B |Eb|Gb|B |Eb|Gb|B |Eb|Gb|B |
hole:  1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10 
blow: |C |E |G |C |E |G |C |E |G |C | 
draw: |D |G |B |D |F |A |B |D |F |A | 
      |Db|Gb|Bb|Db|E |Ab|Bb|Db|E |Ab|
      |C |F |A |C |Eb|G |A |C |Eb|G |

ChengGong Harmonica

Another recent innovation in the harmonica is the ChengGong (a pun on the inventor's name and Xin Gong, "Success") Harmonica, invented by XueXue Cheng of China. It has two parts: the main body, and a sliding mouth piece. The body is a 24 hole diatonic harmonica that starts from b2 to d6 (covering 3 octaves). Its 11-hole mouthpiece can slide along the front of the harmonica, which gives numerous chord choices and voicings (seven triads, three 6th chords, seven 7th chords, and seven 9th chords, with a total of 24 chords available). Yet, the ChengGong is still capable of playing single note melodies and double stops over a range of 3 diatonic octaves, all the while maintaining a small profile, not much larger than a 12-hole chromatic. Also, unlike conventional harmonicas, blowing and drawing produce the same notes. In this way, its tuning is closer to the note layout of a typical asian tremelo harmonica or the Polyphonias.

The Pitch Pipe

The pitch pipe is essentially a specialty harmonica which is designed not for playing music as such but for giving a reference pitch to singers and other instruments. Notably, the only difference between some early pitch-pipes and harmonicas is the name of the instrument, reflecting the maker's target audience.

Harmonica Techniques

Bending and other techniques

In addition to the 19 notes readily available on the diatonic harmonica, players can play other notes by adjusting their embouchure and forcing the reed to resonate at a different pitch. One does this by relaxing and coordinating muscles in the throat, mouth, and lips. This technique is called "bending", a term borrowed from guitarists, who literally "bend" a string in order to create subtle changes in pitch. Using bending, a player can reach all the notes on the major scale. "Bending" also creates the glissandos characteristic of much blues harp and country harmonica playing. Bending on a guitar bends the pitch upward. However, typically 'bending' on a harmonica means the pitch falls downward. Bends are essential for most blues and rock harmonica due to the soulful sounds the instrument can bring out. The famous 'wail' of the blues harp typically required bending.

                           |D |F |A#|
                        |B |D#|F#|B |
hole:  1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10 
blow: |C |E |G |C |E |G |C |E |G |C | 
draw: |D |G |B |D |F |A |B |D |F |A | 
      |C#|F#|A#|C#|E |G#|
         |F |A |

The physics of bending are quite complex, but amount to this: a player can bend the pitch of the higher-tuned reed down toward the pitch of the lower-tuned reed in any given hole. In other words, on holes 1 through 6, the draw notes can be bent and on holes 7 through 10 the blow notes can be bent. Hole 3 allows for the most dramatic bending: in C, it is possible to bend 3 draw from a B down to a G#, or anywhere in between.


In the 1970s, Howard Levy developed the "overbending" technique, which, combined with bending, allowed players to play the entire chromatic scale. When bending, the player forces the lower of the two reeds in a chamber to vibrate faster. When overbending, the player isolates the higher of the two reeds and by so doing can play higher pitched notes. By using both bending and overbending techniques a player can play the entire chromatic scale using a diatonic harmonica. This has allowed diatonic harmonica players to expand into areas traditionally viewed as inhospitable to the instrument such as Jazz.

The overbend is a difficult technique to master. To facilitate overbending, many players use specially modified or customised harmonicas. Any harmonica can be set-up for better overbending. The primary needs are tight tolerances between the reed and reed-plate and a general level of air-tightness between the reed-plate and comb. The former often necessitates lowering the "gap", the space between the tip of the reed and the reed-plate. Another often used technique is to make the space between the sides of the slots in the reed-plate and the reed itself as small as possible by drawing in the metal on the sides of the reed-plate slots towards the reed. While these modifications make the harmonica overbend more easily, overbending is often possible on stock diatonic harmonica, especially on an airtight design.

Although there are players who use precise overbends and bends to play the diatonic harmonica as a fully chromatic instrument, this is still very rare, not simply because the technique is difficult, but also because the sound of an overbend is different from the sound of other notes, as is also the case of normal bent notes. Thus, even though a player could play any melody in any key (within a three octave range) on a C diatonic harmonica (examples: Tinus Koorn and Otavio Castro), most diatonic players prefer to use either use the chromatic, different keys of diatonic harmonicas, or (recently) use valved diatonics or XB-40 for different songs, matching the possibilities of glissandos, register and dynamics of a given harmonica to a melody.

However, more and more people are attempting to overblow, or at least trying to bend on all notes(using valved diato or XB-40), on diatonics, since overbend and bending allow wailing, which is the desired tonal quality for jazz and blues - something that is hard to simulate by chromatic harmonica.


In addition to playing the diatonic harmonica in its original key, it is also possible to play the harmonica in other keys by playing in other "positions", either by playing in another mode (playing in D Dorian or G mixolydian on a C Major harmonica) or by bending notes to achieve a scale not otherwise available on the harmonica (playing in E mixolydian on a C Major harmonica). Harmonica players (especially blues players) have developed a set of terminology around different "positions" which can be somewhat confusing to other musicians. There are twelve "natural positions" that can be achieved without bending; however, in general, harmonica players restrict to the following three:

  • 1st position (or "straight harp"): Ionian mode. Playing the harmonica as it was intended, in its main major key. On a diatonic, starting note is hole 1 blow. On a C-chromatic, starting hole is the same, resulting in C major scale
  • 2nd position (or "cross harp"): Mixolydian mode. playing the harmonica in a key a fifth above its intended key. Playing just the unbended notes, this position gives the mixolydian scale between 2 draw and 6 blow. However, bending the 3 draw allows the player to play a minor third (or a blue third), allowing a player to use a C harmonica to play in G mixolydian or G minor. Blues players can also play a tritone in this position by bending the 4 draw. On a diatonic, starting note is hole 2 draw or hole 3 blow. On a C-chromatic, starting hole is hole 3 blow, resulting in G major with a flatted 7th.
  • 3rd position (or "slant harp"): Dorian mode. Playing the harmonica a full tone above its intended key. This gives a dorian scale between 4 draw and 8 draw, though once again bends and overblows give players a variety of options. Blues players can achieve a tritone by bending the 6 draw. On a diatonic, starting hole is hole 1 draw. On a C-chromatic, starting hole is hole 1 draw, resulting in D-minor with a raised 6th. This is the traditional way of playing Blues on Chromatic.

The terminology for other positions is slightly more varied, though it is possible of course to play in any of the modes and, using overblows and bends, it is possible to play in all 12 keys on a single harmonica - though this is very rarely done on a diatonic, while chromatic harmonica players may prefer having numerous chromatics in different keys, due to difficulties in certain chord and melody construction.

Breaking in a Harmonica

Harmonica players disagree on the need to break in the reeds of a new harmonica, and on break in technique. Even among those that favor a break in period, numerous techniques appear: some may prefer to play a new harmonica for several hours without bending notes; others prefer to play short licks as frequent as possible with reasonable break in between, as recommended by acclaimed harmonica repairer Douglas Tate. Although not recommended (many manufacturers are against this practice), some players break in their harmonicas by soaking them in warm water, and even beer, whiskey, or vodka; this is common for past blues harp players.


The harmonica developed from the intense interests in free-reeds which arose in Europe in the early 19th century. While free-reeds had been fairly common throughout East Asia for centuries and known in Europe for some time before this period, around 1820 there was a virtual eruption of new free-reed designs in Europe and North America. While a young Friederich Ludwig Buschmann is often cited as the inventor of the harmonica in 1821, it was almost certainly a case of simultaneous development amongst several inventors working independently with mouth-blown free-reed instruments appearing in the United States, the United Kingdom and on the continent at roughly the same time. In 1825, Richter tuning was developed, while in 1857, Matthias Hohner, a clockmaker, purchased one of Buschmann's harmonica, and became the first person to mass-produce it. Sometime by the 1850s, the diatonic harmonica had more or less found its modern form and the other diatonic types followed soon thereafter (the various tremolo and octave harmonicas). By the late 19th century, harmonica production was big business and had evolved from a handcraft into mass-production with figures well into the millions, a status which continues to this day. New designs continued to be developed in the 20th century including the chromatic harmonica (first made by Hohner in 1924), the bass harmonica, the chord harmonica and others. Even in the 21st century radical new designs such as the Suzuki Overdrive and Hohner XB-40 continue to be brought to market.

The harmonica's massive success is attributable to many factors. First, it is a fairly easy instrument to play. Of, course, some talent is necessary to play. The diatonic harmonicas were designed primarily for the playing of German and other European folk musics and are extremely successful for that. However, probably unintentionally the basic design and tuning was extremely adaptable to other types of music such as the blues, country, old-time and similar. Second, the majority of harmonicas are quite small--often small enough to unobtrusively fit in a pocket. Third, harmonicas are cheap - amongst the most inexpensive of musical instruments available while not being intended as a toy. Fourth, harmonicas are fairly easy to manufacture and their simple construction allowed for industrial level production without sacrificing the quality of a hand-crafted instrument, unlike most string instruments or other wind instruments. For these reasons the harmonica was a success almost from the very start of production, and while the center of the harmonica business has shifted from Germany the output of the various harmonica manufacturers is still very high indeed. Major companies are now found in Germany (Seydel, Hohner - once the dominant manufacturer in the world, producing some 20 million harmonicas alone in 1920 when German manufacturing totaled over 50 million harmonicas), Japan (Suzuki, Tombo, Yamaha), China (Huang, Leo Shi, Suzuki, Hohner) and Brasil (Hering). Ironically, as the demand for higher quality instruments which respond to more demanding performance techniques has increased, there has been a resurgence in the world of hand-crafted harmonicas which cater to those wanting the absolute best without the compromises inherent in mass manufacturing.

Europe and North America

Shortly after Hohner began manufacturing harmonicas in 1857, he shipped some to relatives who had emigrated to the United States. It rapidly became popular, and the country became an enormous market for Hohner's goods. President Abraham Lincoln carried a harmonica in his pocket, and harmonicas provided solace to soldiers on both the Union and Confederate sides of the United States Civil War. Frontiersmen Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid played the instrument, and it became a fixture of the American musical landscape.

The first recordings of harmonica were made in the U.S. in the 1920s. These recordings are mainly 'race-records', intended for the black market of the southern states. They consist mainly of solo recordings (DeFord Bailey), duo recordings with a guitarist (Hammie Nixon, Walter Horton, Sonny Terry) or recordings featuring the harmonica in some kind of novelty act called the 'Jug Band', of which the Memphis Jug Band is the most famous. But the harmonica still represented a toy instrument in those years and was associated with the poor. It is also during those years that musicians started experimenting with new techniques such as tongue-blocking, hand effects and the most important innovation of all, the 2nd position, or cross-harp.

The harmonica then made its way with the blues and the black migrants to the north, mainly to Chicago but also to Detroit, St. Louis and New York. The music played by the Afro-Americans started to become increasingly different there. The main difference is the electric amplification of the instrument: first the guitar and then the harp, double bass, vocals, etc. The original Sonny Boy Williamson is the most important harmonicist of this era. Using a full blues band, he became one of the most popular acts of Chicago. He also installed for good the cross-harp technique, opening the possibilities of harp playing to new sky. It is hard to imagine how much influence he would have had on the blues, if he had lived longer. Unfortunately, Sonny Boy liked to bring women from the audience on stage and dance with them as he played, and he eventually was stabbed by a jealous husband.

But the harmonica didn't die with him. A young harmonicist by the name of Marion "Little Walter" Jacobs would completely revolutionize the instrument. He had the idea to play the harmonica near a microphone (typically a "Brown Bullet" microphone marketed for use by radio taxi dispatchers, giving it a "punchy" midrange sound that can be heard above radio static, or an electric guitar) and cup his hands around it, thus tightening the air around the harp, giving it a powerful, distorted sound, sometimes reminiscent of a saxophone. This technique, combined with a great virtuosity on the instrument made him arguably the most influential harmonicist in history. It is almost impossible nowadays to find a harp player who wasn't influenced by Walter. Unfortunately, Little Walter also died young, from injuries suffered in a fight.

Little Walter's only contender was perhaps Big Walter Horton. Relying less on the possibilities of amplification (although he made great use of it) than on sheer skill, Big Walter was the favored harmonicist of many Chicago leaders, including Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon. He graced many sides of Waters in the mid-fifties with extremely colorful solos, using the full register of his instrument as well as some chromatic harmonica. The only reason he is less known than Little Walter is because of his taciturn personality and his inconsistency, and his incapacity of holding a band as a leader.

Other great harmonicists have graced the Chicago blues records of the 1950s. Howling Wolf is often overlooked as a harp player, but his early recordings demonstrate great skill, particularly at blowing powerful riffs with the instrument. James Cotton is also a household name of the Chicago Blues scene. He used a less amplified tone, relying on hand effects, giving his playing a country blues feeling to it. Sonny Boy Williamson II also used the possibilities of hand effects to give a very talkative feel to his harp playing. A number of his compositions have also become standards in the blues world.

The 1960s and 1970s saw the harmonica become less prominent as the electric guitar became the favorite instrument for solos. Paul Butterfield is perhaps the most well known harp player of the era in the blues arena. Heavily influenced by Little Walter, he pushed further the virtuosity on the harp. Sadly he rapidly fell into drugs and alcohol, and after his first two albums, his career became stagnant. Keith Relf, the singer of the Yardbirds, was a harp player who could hold up to the guitar playing of his bandmates Eric Clapton and, later, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. Bob Dylan also famously played his harmonica to add a touch of blues to his folk and rock sound during this era. Dylan was known for placing his harmonicas in a brace so that he could simultaneously blow the harp and strum his guitar.

Recently, three harp players have had major influence on the sound of the harmonica. Heavily influenced by the electric guitar sound, John Popper of Blues Traveler has developed an incredible virtuosity on the instrument. His electric and highly distorted solos are played at a breakneck speed. His influence is heavy on modern rock and blues harp players trying to reach new heights with the instrument.

Jazz harmonicists Howard Levy and Chris Michalek are perhaps the most innovative players since Little Walter. They have perfected the bending technique, using the notes it produces with more precision. They are the players that have furthest advanced the technique called overblowing (borrowed from woodwind terminology), which enables the diatonic harmonica to play full chromatic scales across three octaves, while retaining the particular sound of the harp. The overblow technique was first recorded in 1927 by Blues Birdhead (real name James Simons). While an older and more obscure technique, overblowing has been displayed more and more in the 1990s with the emergence of players like Howard Levy, Chris Michalek and Carlos delJunco and players like Jason Ricci are starting to integrate it in a more blues or rock oriented music. Examples of this style are considered to be among the most highly regarded in the harmonica circles.

East Asia

In 1898, the harmonica was brought to Japan; there, the Japanese were more interested in the sound of Tremolo; however after about 30 years, they became dissatisfied with the richter-based layout of the tremolo harmonica, and thus developed the scale tuning, as well as the semitone harmonicas, in order to be able to perform Japanese folk songs. During sometime in 1924 and 1933, it was brought to other places in East Asia.

The history of the harmonica in Taiwan began sometime around 1945; due to the influence of numerous harmonica experts, as well as versatility and cheap prices of the harmonica. It became one of the standard instruments on the island, being treated as a serious instrument during its peak at the 1980s - more so than Europe and America, where it was often associated as a blues-only instrument in most cases. However, as the western lifestyle began to spread, as well as an increase in living standards, many instruments that were once too expensive to buy can be bought by the Taiwanese. Additionally due to many schools of methodologies on the harmonica, the harmonica as an instrument almost faded to obscurity in the 90s. In order to raise the appeal of the harmonica back to it what it once was, numerous harmonica lovers in Taiwan began to promote the harmonica heavily, starting with the introduction of harmonicas and methodology that are popular in the Western world (eg. Chromatic and Diatonic harmonicas), as well as participating in numerous international competitions. In 1993, the Yellowstone Orchestra won the first gold in an international harmonica competition. However, to the disappointment of many harmonica players, the resources for education are severely lacking, and many materials are not much different from those that were created 20 years ago.

Comparison between Asia and Europe/America

Compared to Euro/American players, Asian players prefer to use tremelo harmonicas, since not only do they prefer the tonal quality of tremelo, the diatonic have "missing" notes; on many Asian discussion boards, players claim bending for those notes was too hard and too "inaccurate" for the music they play. This is true in many aspects, especially if they practice bending on tremelo (one needs to cover one of the holes to facillate a single reed bend).

On the other hand, in terms of North American players, while they knew bending's semi-tone IS imprecise and different, that is the tonal quality they wanted. Thus, in contrast, many harmonica players in North America favor overbending diatonic harmonicas, or use valved diatos and/or XB-40s for the "chromatic" playing. However, the truth is that playing chromatic is actually much less frequent, as most players merely play different positions (which means playing three keys as most per diatonic harmonica). Since classical players use chromatic, the only group of players that fully utilize the diatonic harmonica's chromaticability are jazz and bluegrass players.

The reason of this difference may be due to the fact most asian players play asian folk songs, ballads, and popular music (which seldom use wails) or classical music, while harmonica players in North America play mostly blues, jazz, and country, and require the diatonic's dynamics (aka growls and wails). Additionally, Asian players treat harmonica as a melodic instrument, and many "self-accompaniment" techniques taught there are treated merely as a way to thicken the sound in North America. In contrast, North America players focused quite a bit on chords, possibilly due to the need to play blues and jazz.

One common (and ironic) point of view is that both sides often declared the other side's diatonic is only good for playing very simple (usually European) folks songs, and unsuited for the pop songs that they played. It is possible that, due to this, their approach toward chromatic is different: for Asian players, chromatic, which have very similar playing style to tremelo (stacking a C# on top of a C), caught on quite quickly; this is in contrast to North American players, which merely treat it as a diatonic harmonica, and do not use slides that often. This is a possibility why there was a very rapid rebirth of harmonica playing in Asia, but not so much in North America.

Another difference is that Asian players usually state Suzuki is more airtight and more in tune (which is true, since Suzuki use equal temperament), while european/American player state Hohner is more airtight and better sounding (since it use just intonation). Ultimately, it depends on the player's taste, and the price of the harmonica.

Related instruments

The unrelated glass harmonica is a musical instrument formed of a nested set of graduated glass cups mounted sideways on an axle and partially immersed in water, and played by touching the rotating cups with wetted fingers, causing them to vibrate.

The concertina, diatonic and chromatic accordions and the melodica are all free-reed instruments which were developed alongside the harmonica. Indeed, the similarities between harmonicas and so-called "diatonic" accordions or melodeons is such that in German the name for the former is "Mundharmonika" and the later "Handharmonika", translated simply as "mouth harmonica" and "hand harmonica". The harmonica shares similarities to all other free-reed instruments by virtue of the method of sound production.

Harmonica manufacturers

  • Hohner USA
  • Suzuki Harmonica
  • Lee Oskar
  • Tombo
  • Seydel
  • Hering USA
  • Bushman

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Document License
It uses material from the Wikipedia article - Harmonica